The Age of Austerity


Notes: Keynote talk, CCPA Post-Austerity session, Toronto, January 9, 2013

We are living in the “Age of Austerity” or at least so says David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister. He made this announcement in 2009 at the Conservative convention just before becoming prime minister. This meant, he explained, that he would have to fix the errors, the folly of previous governments. He would restore the economy by cutting spending, reducing the size of government, and shifting resources from public to private.

In 2010, the G20 met in Toronto and, apart from arresting citizens, they were also talking austerity. Canada led the charge. Fiscal consolidation we called it. Canada had become the darling of fiscal policy – the world leader in austerity. (Remember when we used to be the world leader in diversity, inclusive community, gender equality, balanced crime policy?) Increasingly our allies were asking us how to implement an austerity agenda. And certainly we had some important lessons to share given our fiscal successes in the 1990s. But what we may have forgot to tell everyone was that taxes were much higher then than they are now. Interest rates were higher too, so the costs of debt were higher, the urgency was greater, and we had more room to offset the consequences of cuts. We may have also forgot to tell everyone that the rest of the world was spending while we were contracting and because of this we were able – at least in part – to grow ourselves out of deficit.

In any case, by 2011, austerity had spread across most of Europe. Cameron, it seems, had aptly characterized the times.

By the end of 2012, however, the glow was starting to come off austerity. This was not just because of the spreading riots, disruption and violence across Europe though that’s a pretty good reason. This was not just because of job losses, soaring inequality or the devastating human consequences felt most heavily by the most vulnerable, and by women and the young – all good reasons too. No, austerity was losing its lustre primarily because it just wasn’t working. In the U.K., for example, the prime minister just extended his targets for balancing the budget because the cuts were not delivering their promise. The budget office lowered its growth projections because the costs of austerity are greater than expected. Austerity Europe was experiencing huge pain, little gain.

A recent IMF report, what I like to call the apology report, admits that the IMF had seriously underestimated the consequences of austerity on growth and now were cautioning that maybe we should all back off. (To be fair they were always cautious about austerity and its impacts.)

For a number of economists this was no surprise. Joseph Stiglitz had warned that austerity is medieval medicine, don’t do it. Paul Krugman and, here, Jim Stanford were saying that this was not the time, austerity would make things worse, possibly take us to depression.

What became increasingly clear was that austerity had never been driven by fiscal policy or economics or evidence. It was driven by ideology. Market fundamentalism. A desire to make government much smaller, eliminate or reduce, as much as politics allowed, so-called entitlements, create a “pro-business” climate of less regulation, less government, and, above all, lower taxes.

Think about the irony of this: that the huge recession-induced deficits that were largely the result of tax cuts and deregulation were now the justification to renew the commitment to that same failed ideology. Deficits were a gift – cover to do what many had wanted to do all along. Cut government down to size. Cut services. Cut. It seems that every failure of this neoconservative approach is used by its advocates to justify doing more of the same. That’s kind of nuts.

How about Canada? I left the Privy Council and Canada for a few years in 2006. At that time Canada had a $16 billion surplus. That’s a real problem for those who might share Cameron’s ideology because without big deficits it’s harder to argue for the urgency to cut programs, reduce government. Instead, the decision was made to cut taxes, for example, taking two cents out of GST. Today those two cents cost the federal government about $14 billion annually. That’s on top of continuing the corporate tax cuts the Liberals had already launched and on top of numerous “boutique tax cuts” and on top of Liberal tax cuts in 2000 that were the biggest in Canadian history.

Imagine none of that had happened. Imagine that the federal government had at least a good portion of the revenue that they gave up over the last dozen years. They would have had enough money to be far more resilient in the face of recession, to help provinces that were in trouble, to invest in science, education, in a greener, cleaner economy and to begin to transform our health and social programs so they would be there for future generations.

Instead, we’re now talking about austerity as though it’s inevitable, as though we have no choice. (When our leaders tell us that there is no alternative, it is a safe bet to assume that there is indeed an alternative and one that we would prefer were it on offer.)

When I came back to Canada just before the 2011 election it seemed as if we were all suffering the effects of austeria. Every Wednesday in Ottawa the opposition had what they called waste Wednesdays: a press conference to show how much money Conservatives were wasting. Their biggest issue? These spendthrift Conservatives. Then I watched the leadership debate. Four men (May had not been invited) were competing for who’s the biggest fiscal hawk, who’s the biggest tax cutter. Nobody wanted to be seen as a tax and spender.

Where is the discussion on alternatives? Where’s the tax conversation that we ought to be having? Our current deficit is the result of recession-related spending – now ended, I would say prematurely – and unaffordable tax cuts. But even still if you compare us to anyplace else, our fiscal situation is pretty good. This is not the 1990s. We’re not Greece.

As I said, austerity is losing its lustre. We are seeing a debate now all across Europe about whether austerity is the way to go and my view is that we are going to see taxes coming back up, including a big commitment to containing the worst of inequality. The debates are intense in Europe. Not surprising. The cuts have been deep. The suffering great. The backlash severe. And the fiscal results lousy.

In Canada, austerity has been implemented in slow motion and this incremental, barely visible austerity has been seductive. It’s harder to rally opposition. More so because very little information has been provided on the extent and implications of the cuts – it is almost impossible to develop a complete picture of where we are headed. Strategic obfuscation.

Right now, the most visible cuts are the most politically sexy or at least saleable. The targets? Public servants, teachers’ salaries, politically easy stuff that feeds off stereotypes and nurtures divisions between unionized and non-unionized, public and private.

Who else? Welfare recipients. Refugees. Migrant workers. Austerity by stealth, it seems, is making us meaner. Policy in the age of austerity becomes a highly competitive, zero-sum game. Never-ending austerity invites ever deeper divisions, resentments and jealousies.

Perhaps most disturbing about this slow motion austerity are the opportunity costs. Our focus on cutting – often nickel-and-dime cutting – takes us away from the big issues. We’re not talking about climate change. We lag when we should be a leader. We lag on green energy and we could be a leader. We lag Northern Europe – and we should be comparing ourselves to the best – on jobs, on youth employment, on equality. We’re in drift. Self-imposed austerity and a list of trade deals is not an economic plan.

What is the alternative to an austerity agenda? Of course we have to be fiscally prudent, to reduce waste, make wise choices, balance spending and revenue over time, reduce debt in good times. But as Jim Stanford has shown we are far more likely to achieve our objectives if we focus on employment and a living wage that will restore the revenue we need and reduce the demand for government help. The alternative to austerity – take back our future rather than leave it to the vagaries of the market. To make the investments now in the clean and green jobs of the future. To tackle the big challenges together – climate change, inequality and poverty, eroding democracy. To stop the erosion in our public services but rather transform them in the face of our demographic challenges and technological opportunities. The alternative to austerity – the renewal of our sense of the common good and a conversation about taxes because we only get the future we are willing to pay for.

Great change generally starts outside conventional political institutions. Idle No More, the students in Montreal, the Occupy movement, the many fighting against risky pipelines, the health care providers protesting cuts to refugee health benefits and a few rich folk calling on governments to tax us more – I believe those are part of a larger movement. The ‘enough already’ movement.

Each of these movements has its critics. Their demands are not always clear. They do seem to wax and wane. But if we see them as part of a larger discontent, a widespread hunger for something better, maybe we will understand that first and foremost they are about changing the conversation – and they are not likely going away. With all their differences they are asking some of the same questions: How did fiscal health become more important than human health? How did the health of the so-called job creators become more important than the health of the rest of us? How do we put people and the natural world that sustains all else at the centre of the agenda?

Canada would be an excellent place to do that.

74 Responses to “The Age of Austerity”
  1. Literacy grows the top line, and restores fiscal balance.
    • Literacy improves economic prospects and participation in society.
    …. Literacy grows both the market and the tax base.
    • Literacy improves government services delivery, and thereby lowers costs.
    …. Literacy is a social determinant of health (Health Council of Canada)
    …. Where literacy improves, so do public health outcomes.
    …. In turn, longer term health care costs reduce.
    Growing the top line at the same time as costs reduce will restore fiscal balance.

  2. Satya Brink says:

    Well done! Obama had a point in his inaugural speech where he said that there was too much emphasis on the wealth of the few and not enough on the well being of the rest of us. Or something like that. If we examined the austerity distribution, it would be most recessive.

  3. Michael Edwards says:

    Thank you Alex. I agree nowhere has austerity resulted in anything but pain for those in the middle and below. Perhaps the European experience with show us the way. But I am not optimistic that will happen before 2015.
    Here in New Brunswick the race to the bottom has left us with lowest corp taxes in Canada. It has not resulted in the promised investment boom that McKenna et al promised. A total failure.
    Govt revenues have declined and now the Alward Government will cut spending further.
    Their austerity has resulted in a further shrinking of govt revenues and lost jobs…and so the spiral down continues.
    Loyalty to ideology has blinded them to what is happening, even to the blandishments of the provinces largest private companies who have stated their support for a return to a more reasonable tax regime.
    It seems we have to wait some more for the penny to drop here…

  4. pmcummins says:

    Finally, some sane observations. If only some of the current leadership candidates had the courage to take a cue and at least initiate a discussion.

  5. Ryan says:

    Another superb piece. My eyes really opened when I read your comment that austerity in Canada has been implemented in slow motion and that as a result it is harder to rally opposition. That is a really important comparative insight that I haven’t heard people talk about.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Ryan, the silent transformation of Canada.

    • Catherine @Soplet says:

      It is also possible to rebuild in increments. That’s how Ontario public education moved from tatters in 2003 to be heralded as lthe lead English-speaking system in 2012. Increments and localized solutions will carry the day… that’s what Financial Post Business Insider cited as a remedy Jan 2’13 in “5 major global risks that the elites at Davos should be afraid of….” .

      Micro fund parent grants in Ontario public education schools provide a means to incremental localized fixes. The grants were first available in 2005. Where grants place, education / literacy metrics post over time, in schools serving both privileged and vulnerable high-settlement, low-income families alike.

      Through the ranking lens of Fraser Institute 2012 Report Card of Ontario Secondary Schools, we uncover pivotal recovery in Toronto’s identified priority neighbourhoods and celebrate excellence in a 1%cluster of high-ranked schools located in Mississauga, Ontario

  6. Mark Hammer says:

    As a Hammer, I can say with authority that you hit the nail on the head in your 3rd last paragraph.
    Reticence to spend (or tax) unnecessarily is certainly going to be a *component* of prudence, at one time or another, but it is not functionally EQUIVALENT to, or isomorphic with, prudence. And that strikes me as the error that too many make – believing that austerity and prudence are simply interchangeable, and that if we have a government that supports stinginess, we have a wise one.

    I guess one of the ongoing challenges is whether that distinction is clear to the voters/taxpayers. But a concommitant challenge is whether those tasked with setting governmental direction understand the distinction themselves, and are up to the task of explaining the distinction to irritable taxpayers. After all, any government which adopts a more flexible notion of “prudence” in public policy can’t be in office to exercise that vision unless voters can *recognize* the difference between austerity and prudence.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mark, interesting though how many are now turning against “austerity for austerity sake” – even format advocates if you check out today’s G and M – except maybe in Canada.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Any rejection of austerity in places other than Canada is coming, I gather, from the severe impatient and panic-stricken leap to austerity that has ended up penalizing so many. In some instances, like some of the stories I heard about Greece, austerity measures have not gone hand in hand with tax cuts. Rather, people find themselves out of work, yet pressed for taxes that they simply can’t afford to pay.

        Our own approach to austerity here, is not quite so panicky and rash, since we’ve been relatvely prudent, and not quite as neglectful, over time as some other nations. That doesn’t mean we are on our best behaviour right now, but our own worst has not been quite as bad as some others….if we can take some comfort in that.

        One has to wonder how much both fiscal drift, and knee-jerk austerity, are consequences of the increasing difficulty governments have in keeping aware of ALL their priorities, so as to be able to balance and attend to them appropriately. It’s as if we have a vast pantry and fridge, and easily lose track of what we have accidentally bought in duplicate, what we needed to pick up at the store because we were running out, and what is verging on going bad. It must have been SO much easier to run a nation 100 years ago. Not that the individual challenges were necessarily easier, but there are just so damn *many* of them now.

      • himelfarb says:

        As always all quite sensible – but to press the point, however complex we have made it, at the federal level at least, we were delivering surpluses so we clearly did not have a spending problem. However calm our austerity may be, it is largely self-induced. On the tax side, the countries that were the high tax countries – Northern Europe – have done much better than the rest so I don’t really buy your argument on taxes. The countries having the toughest time were not the highest takers and were the highest tax avoiders.

  7. I love the austerity mentality. We grow GDP by cutting GDP at a time when the economy is inching along. That’s ‘common sense’ politics for you.

    Next thing you know ‘they’ will be telling us that we should simultaneously raise taxes AND cut spending. If most of the other economies in distress do it we might be able to push ourselves into a currency devaluation growth model.

    All that said, we seem to be gleefully and blissfully drifting into the secular issues that political leadership of any stripe refuses to address. I guess we’ll deal with those bridges when we’re forced to cross them.

    Yes, we have short term issues. We also have longer term issues. It seems to me the longer term issues–which aren’t that far away–require the opposite response to the short term ones. We need to start bending the health care cost curve down. Can this be achieved through ‘efficiency’? I doubt it.

    – Joe Pessimist, Toronto, 33

    • himelfarb says:

      Bleak, but pretty compelling. As for health costs, we could learn from Norther Europe where more is public – 80% to our 70%, the results are better at lower costs.

  8. Beijing York says:

    I’ve missed checking in. Another excellent overview of how current governance trends are failing us. It’s happening on all levels and with little analysis of how conditioned we have become to accept low taxes and service cuts as the new normal. And with every quarterly report issued by the Bank of Canada, where our recovery isn’t what was expected, I roll my eyes and think we were gamed into thinking that our economy was far stronger than it was during the last election. Economic stimulus depends on more than just construction jobs to expand a hockey arena or renovate a curling club. I’ve seen the Canada Economic Action Plan posters throughout my city and they were mostly for cosmetic rehabilitation jobs on existing facilities. Real economic stimulus NOT.

    Imagine if that “action plan” had actually stimulated important infrastructure and green innovation projects. I would have loved seeing bullet train systems built along key corridors. I would have loved to see improvements and expansion of wind, solar and tidal energy options. Public transit improvements in major cities would have also been welcomed. And wouldn’t part of the bonus have been the creation of long-term, well-paid jobs? So many lost opportunities to make this country a better place to live – something that maybe believed it was.

    • himelfarb says:

      We were gamed. Great title for a book. Imagine that instead of reducing taxes we delivered on Kelowna, replaced welfare with a guaranteed income. Imagine that instead of withdrawing from Kyoto we implemented a progressive carbon tax and invested in alternatives -and clean technology and infrastructure. Imagine that instead of exploiting migrant workers and undermining collective bargaining we promoted a living wage. Imagine that instead of dividing and fueling anger we sought to engage people in building the future.

      I have missed blogging too. Just finishing up a book – Tax is Not a Four-Letter Word – but hope to get back at the blogging more regularly even if just to keep these conversations going. Always great to reconnect BJ.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        You know, I understand how it can be that folks would like to see taxes spent prudently, so that more is achieved for the same money. I understand how they can have some quarrel with the spending priorities for that money. I also grasp how unrestricted taxation can induce a certain laxness with how that money is used. But I can never quite understand how people can insist on their citizenship, and the rights stemming from that, yet at the same time do everything in their power to demand lower taxes and hide/refuse as much of those taxes as they can. I can’t get over the lack of shame people seem to have at this time of year, regarding the myriad of ways they have or seek of refusing/avoiding/hiding their fair share of what supports the very country they profess to love. “Yes I love you, and I’ll marry you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for food in your belly and a roof over your head.” “Great car, but I’ll be damned if I’ll put gas into that thing.” Economists can throw whatever theoretical rationalizations and justifications they want at it, but quite honestly, when it comes down to it, people are tightwads when it comes to their citizenship. They LOVE austerity…when it affects someone else.

        Me, I’ve had bypass surgery, am alive because of it, and don’t begrudge a single penny of what I pay because I don’t think I’ll ever pay enough taxes to fulfill that debt. I’ve never sought a shelter, and never will. Now I’ve made myself curious about the extent to which peole who have come here as refugees seek out tax shelters or or try to cut corners when it comes to deductible claims. It’s hard to be both grateful and spiteful at the same time.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks for this Mark. I have a book coming out this Spring to be called Tax Is Not A Four-Letter Word that tries to get at how we got here and how we might extract ourselves.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Mark. Of course this kind of thing has existed forever in some form but just think of the free rider problem if this were the preferred approach for most public goods. And free riding breaks trust and people who are generally ready to pay their fair share stop giving because they feel exploited, etc. a la carte government captures it.

  9. Ian says:

    Everybody knows that we are being screwed incrementally. It’s a secret all over the block. The question is, what should Canadians do about it?

    I don’t think there is any point in trying to solve the problems by practicing conventional politics. The politicians have been bought and sold so many times that I doubt they know what they think anymore.

    The children of Quebec and the First Nations have given us a meaningful direction to follow. We would be wise to learn the lessons of our children. And the main lesson is that you don’t try to untie the knot, you slice through the knot, and it will untie itself.

  10. Catherine @Soplet says:

    Anyone catch Scott Stinson’s bit today on Fraser Institute Report, “The State of Ontario’s Indebtedness: Warning Signs to Act”.

    “Piffle” I say, and use Fraser Institute lens against them
    DR for Health and Education must amortize to CR for Talent

  11. Ian says:

    The obligatory Cohen reference.

  12. Catherine @Soplet says:

    The business schools are seeking answers ….. Who is available to get into this room ?

    Feb 8, at Schulich School, York U: Net Impact conference

    “Join Schulich Net Impact and engage in thought provoking dialogue with local leaders, industry professionals and other students on what companies are doing to embrace this change and the broader systemic transformation that will be necessary.

    As the world grapples with the recent economic crisis, the exposure of unethical practices in the financial system, the emergence of the ‘Occupy’ movement, and global climate change, civic and business leaders are beginning to realize the need for a fundamentally different approach that goes beyond “business as usual”

    It is no longer about CSR or tack-on sustainability initiatives, the business leaders of tomorrow need to know how business is fundamentally changing to address the environmental, social and business challenges of the future. There is an urgent need to drive ideas into actions. Welcome to the world of Capitalism 2.0.

    • Michael Edwards says:

      I believe that prosperity killed socialism. Unions, too, were the victim of their own success. But, Capitalism hasn’t been triumphant, just the last man standing.

      As history is written by the victor, however, unbridled capitalism has been falsely credited with all that is good in the world, just as progressivism has become a pejorative.

      If business schools think that a re-jig to Capitalism 2.0 without some balancing force (outside of capitalism), is the solution, then I worry. The solution to our decline is not to be found solely in the market, any more than than repair of our democracy will be aided by a more powerful oligarchy.

      That prosperity in our current system depends on austerity shows it’s fundamental inability to ever serve more than the 1%.

      • himelfarb says:

        Well said Michael. I have often thought that the success of the progressive state has contributed to its undoing – we came to take for granted the level of well being that previous generations could only imagine and fought and paid to provide us. In our success we lost some of our concern for the many still suffering, increasingly blaming them rather than ourselves. The Guardian has a great piece today on how capitalism has lost it’s moral foundations. Worth a read.

      • Catherine @Soplet says:

        Michael…. Yours then is the message which needs to be carried into the Schulich room. I would do it myself, but am unable to attend. The Net Impact conference is concurrent with Peel Region – Poverty Reduction Strategy meeting to roll out a Feb22 #transPEDation panel to address Ontario’s Big Move! from the lens of working poor.

        Peel Poverty Action Group publishes its newspaper “Tough Times” on fumes and prayers. Publication deadline is Feb 15’12 for next issue. The paper is distributed to target market of cash-poor via Mississauga Food Bank and public libraries, with the help of Peel labour unions. Read the last issue here:

        PPAG can use support, either spotlights or cash are welcome.
        Catherine Soplet
        Member, Peel Poverty Action Group

      • Michael Edwards says:

        Sadly, or not so sadly, I’m in New Brunswick! Otherwise I would attend.

      • Michael Edwards says:

        Alex, Do you have a link to the gaurdian article? I see their series but I can’t find one for today…

      • Michael Edwards says:

        I’m also dyslexic …

      • Catherine @Soplet says:

        New Brunswick has business schools and corporations vetting Corporate Social Responsibility. Make sure they get your message. Florenceville is an interesting locum for my support.

  13. Marco A Gutierrez says:

    “Austerity by stealth, it seems, is making us meaner” Long time ago I read a news in The Toronto star about a guy who was in Rob Ford team but quit because he want to create a conservative movement like The Tea Party and that made me think were is the Canada I use to know? This is not my Canada, What’s happening? we are worried more about “my” taxes, “my” economy, “my” “my” “my”. This is the result of many years of reformist goverment. God Save Canada.

  14. May Hen says:

    Hi Alex,

    I sent you an e-mail about a week and a half ago about a tax project I am working on and was wondering if you had received it? Thought I would follow up here.

  15. Ian says:

    Music for Eighteen Musicians….

  16. Mark Hammer says:

    Not at all directly related to the present discussion, but as a resource that links economics, public policy and sociology together, that I am certain you would find fascinating, I’ll direct you to the transcript/podcasts of a panel discussion that took place at the Brookings Institution this past December. The question that instigated it (Can Working Longer Solve Our Budget Problems?) is a mere jumping off point. This is about as fullsome a discussion of the social institution of retirement, the economic causes and impact of changes in when it occurs or what form it takes, and its future, as I’ve ever seen. Gives much to ponder in terms of public policy. Not in the sense of provoking panic, but rather in terms of considering just how long and plentiful the tendrils of this beast are, what its care and feeding consist of, and what it takes in the way of world and national economic conditions to do that. Very highly recommended.

  17. Matthias says:

    Hear, hear!

  18. Ian says:

    Joe Hall and The Continental Drift – another Canadian song….

  19. ian says:

    I truly hope that we all get to the bright sun shinny day.

  20. Catherine @Soplet says:

    Eyeblinks of hopefulness with Ontario’s Throne Speech, Feb 19.

    “The central objectives of your new government will be fiscal responsibility, economic growth and increased employment — the bedrocks on which it will build.

    It will ensure opportunity for all without letting anyone slip through the cracks.”

  21. anonymous says:

    I bet Steve never made it to the level of manager trainee like Buddy did. Mail room boy at imperial Oil, secretary at NCC and Preston Manning lackey don’t qualify.

  22. Dan Horsman says:

    I just came across your Age of Austerity speech. I thought that you would be interested to know that several years ago, when the NB government was proposing to reduce corporate and personal income taxes,I examined the relationship between economic growth and tax burden on businesses in the 50 US states over a ten year period. In short, there was no relationship between the two. In fact, poor states economically tended to have the lowest rates of taxation. Of course, the NB govt went ahead with its planned tax cuts anyway!

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Dan. I would love to see your study if you still have access to it. In any case, I’m not surprised that your findings were ignored. Tax cutting over the last few years has largely been driven by short-term politics or ideology. They yielded none of the innovation or productivity promised – but the cutting continued.

      • says:

        I am currently in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.  I expect to be back home in a couple of weeks and I will look for my report then.  Do you have an email address that I can send it to?

        Dan H.


    • Please, Dan, I would like to see this report as well.

      Public education in Ontario is showing remarkably improved education outcomes since 2003. We don’t need further cuts.

      In the face of encroaching poverty in Peel, as reported by Rachel Mendelson in Toronto Star April 2013, and with chronic near-lowest per capital underfunding for public education and human services delivery, public schools have found a way to deliver improving education outcomes ahead of the provincial standards .

      Peel District School Board affirms the progress made against education indicators of Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy. It also identifies that elements of Youth Action Plan are delivered where grants place. Peel DSB nominated me for raising awareness and helping to place the parent PRO grants, and I received the 2013 Award of Excellence from Ontario Public School Boards Association. Local press reported online:

      I will anchor a roundtable at on May 21, during the THRIVE segment to explain the role of parent PRO grants to be a lead tool in the kit to achieve these education results. The grants are identified as a promising practice by Peel Region – Poverty Reduction Strategy in its emerging governance documents.

      The WHY+HOW of parent grants can be found at

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